Low, slow, and smokin’

Low, slow, and smokin’

Cornbread, collard greens, pork loin ribs, and beef brisket from GottaQ in Cumberland. 
Scratch-made barbecue heats up the local food scene

Looking for news about something that is actually thriving in 2020? Look no further. Barbecue in New England seems to be having its day in the sun. Over the last few years, interest in barbecue in the area has seen a significant increase, with local pitmasters delivering to meet the need.

One common denominator runs through the local scene: Barbecue is a labor of love.

As a culinary art that requires patience and thrives on “low and slow,” you can’t rush good barbecue. Those who excel in the business seem to have a true passion for what they do, spending hours tending to their prized smokers.

Johnny Hanaway, of Johnny’s Victory Diner in Burrillville, went from a background in the mortgage business to having his barbecue named as the Rhode Island pick in Food and Wine’s “Best barbecue in every state” article in September.

His wife, Rhonda Hanaway, said it began when they were living in New Hampshire years ago, where "a little old man had a smoker out on a street corner," selling barbecue sandwiches. Johnny was intrigued, repeatedly visited the man to ask questions, and was inspired to buy his own small smoker.

He cooked for friends, honing his craft, and brought the smoker with him when the Hanaways moved back to Rhode Island to be closer to family.

The Hanaways opened up a small roadside stand outside of what was then Stick’s Tavern in Glocester, and “before we knew it we were smoking 600 pounds of meat per weekend,” Rhonda said.

Johnny’s passion led him to a class in Georgia studying under Myron Mixon, celebrity chef and barbecue competitor, as well as to taking a trip to New York to purchase a smoker that was big enough to serve the growing demand.

The Hanaways bought their current diner in July of 2018, incorporating barbecue into the dinner menu on Friday nights, and things took off from there. Rhonda said they’ve seen the interest in barbecue grow significantly over the last few years, with their mention in Food and Wine also giving them an extra boost.

“Since we’ve got the recognition, we’ve had foodies from all over coming to visit,” she said. The brisket grilled cheese is a customer favorite.

What makes the barbecue at their diner unique? Rhonda says it’s Johnny’s rub recipe, and “there’s a difference between a little mom and pop place” and other places.

While the diner usually ends its barbecue season Labor Day weekend, it's extended through to the end of October.

Rhonda said with a difficult March and April due to COVID-19, coming back was tough. They started by easing into takeout and are now open five days a week, offering both indoor and outdoor dining, and are acquiring four new heaters through the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and the state’s Take It Outside campaign.

At Goodstuff Smokehouse in Blackstone, co-owner David Forgit said, “It started as a hobby. Then I bit off more than I could chew – cooked a whole a pig and it snowballed."

Moving from backyard parties, fairs and festivals to a food truck, Forgit and his brother, Kevin Miller, who both have culinary backgrounds, took over the lease in 2017 of their current building, which housed the former Paradise Café.

Forgit said barbecue has gained significant popularity locally in recent years. “Everyone says Yankees can’t make barbecue," he said, "but we’ve got hardwood and pigs, and we can cook ’em.”

Forgit said what makes Goodstuff’s barbecue unique is “our two giant pits.” Named Cheech and Chong, the smokers use hickory fire. The smokers were custom built, with Forgit bringing blueprints to General Welding in Woonsocket to have them made.

And the recipes? “We borrow from everywhere, but our techniques are our own. The finished product is definitely our own. And some of the things we cook are not found everywhere,” Forgit said, mentioning the restaurant’s pastrami offering.

Forgit said the restaurant had switched to takeout at the beginning of the pandemic, adding that they already did a high amount of takeout before restaurant restrictions hit. Indoor dining opened back up at the beginning of July.

Adam Batchelder, owner/executive chef of Smoke & Squeal BBQ in Pawtucket, said that barbecue is definitely a growing trend in the area, thanks in part to TV and streaming services including Netflix, which recently added three specials about smoked barbecue.

“If you look back seven to 10 years ago, there was almost nothing for barbecue (here),” he said, compared to down south where barbecue is like Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s on every corner.

In this area there are more barbecue joints opening up all the time, he said, adding, “I think every barbecue place is unique.”

When Batchelder, who studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, served in the military, he had the opportunity to travel around the South and West and sample a lot of great barbecue, flavors that he incorporates in Smoke & Squeal, which opened in 2017, he said.

“What we try and do is bring different flavors from different regions,” he said. He serves up Texas-style brisket, Kansas City-style ribs, and a Carolina vinegar-based pork. “We try to cherry-pick the best of each region.”

All of their meats are smoked with whole logs of oak wood with the bark taken off, he noted.

Passion makes for the best BBQ, according to Batchelder. “You can’t just throw it in the smoker,” he said, adding that you have to have the right wood and seasoning and go by the look, feel, and smell of the meat.

His favorite dish is their smoked chicken wings, which they smoke for two hours, pop in the fryer for a few seconds and serve with a jalapeño cream sauce. “It’s just phenomenal.”

During the pandemic, Batchelder, who received the 2020 Rhode Island Veteran-owned Small Business of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, said he never closed; instead he’s been running the place with one other employee and noted the location is more suited for takeout than sit down anyway. He’s a part-coordinator on the new outdoor beer garden at the Providence pedestrian bridge along with The Guild and Ocean State Concessions, he added.

Mike Strout, owner of GottaQ in Cumberland, said “doing it low and slow” makes the best barbecue. Be patient, know how to control your pit, fire, and temperatures, and use rubs and marinades that you like, he said. “It’s a personal thing.”

At GottaQ, they smoke everything with hickory hardwood, he said. Two items that sell out every time they’re on the menu are tri-tip sirloin and St. Louis ribs, Strout said.

Strout, a retired firefighter who lived in Florida before moving to Cumberland in 2001, said he learned from a lot of really good teachers about fire management and how to cook low and slow. He launched GottaQ in 2014 and said in the first few years they were one of about six barbecue places within 100 square miles. Then all of a sudden more and more places popped up. “The market is now so crowded,” he said.

GottaQ has a presence regionally and nationally and has received a number of accolades, including from competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City BBQ Society, said Strout, who’s on the board of the Northeast BBQ Society.

While Strout’s business has been affected by the pandemic like every other establishment, he said they’re used to doing a big takeout operation with the food trucks.

Johnny Hanaway, of Johnny’s Victory Diner, working at his smoker.
Brothers, from left, Kevin Miller and David Forgit are co-owners of Goodstuff Smokehouse in Blackstone.
Mike and Janice Strout, the owners of GottaQ in Cumberland.